Film Review: Adult Human Female

In the wake of Edinburgh University’s second cancellation of a proposed screening of the Adult Human Female screening, one of the Legal Feminists went to watch it.

Which is pretty easy, as it is online and on YouTube

Certified by the BBFC with a 15 rating, it features interviews with a number of women (and one man) who hold concerns over the conflict of rights between women and transgender people in light of legal and social developments of the last few years, and in particular over proposals (dropped in England and Wales, but still live in Scotland) to amend the Gender Recognition Act to make it possible to get a GRC without a diagnosis of gender dysphoria. The most notable of those is the proposal in England and Wales (now dropped) and in Scotland (still live) to allow a person to obtain a Gender Recognition Certificate, and thereby a new legal sex, by simple self-definition.

The intention is to streamline the system for those who are put off by the bureaucracy involved in obtaining a Gender Recognition Certificate but who would otherwise plainly be entitled to one.

The difficulty is that this benevolence then includes people who do not have a Gender Recognition Certificate, not because they have never applied but would otherwise qualify, but because they very plainly would not qualify under the current provisions. The last ten years have taught us that it is almost impossible for service providers to distinguish between the two, not least because it has been impressed upon them that it is impolite or impermissible to ask. This may once have worked when the only males who would seek to access female services were a tiny, discrete group of transsexuals. That finely balanced compromise is displaced by self-definition, which extends to a much wider group.

The Adult Human Female film features interviews with women who argue – in the most moderate terms – that this creates a conflict of rights. 

I have to say, from the fuss that the film has created, I was rather hoping to see something considerably more seditious than a doctor saying that biological sex can affect medical treatment; a professor of criminology talking about statistics in prisons; and a barrister talking about the law. If I have a criticism of the film, they can only be that it is unexciting compared to the hype. That one interviewee referenced the Equalities [sic] Act (pet hate). And, perhaps, that Prof. Phoenix could have made it clearer at the outset of one segment that she was talking about trans prisoners, when she gave the statistical analysis, rather than the entire trans population in the community (although the context was rapidly made clear). 

The interviewees all take a left-wing approach to the topic. They look at the effect on women not individually but as a class. What is the effect on women as a class if single sex becomes mixed sex? In particular, on vulnerable women in prison, in refuge, in crisis. 

The film makers do not exclude the possibility that trans people may also need crisis support and emphasise that support services to trans people should be maintained. One issue which is raised – but not resolved – is that at the point of introduction of the GRA it was only ever imagined that those who would be encompassed in the category of legal (rather than biological) women were those who suffered severe gender dysphoria and who underwent surgery. Parliament simply did not envisage that this easily identifiable and discrete category would expand to include what Prof Phoenix described as a “gossamer” of cross-dressers, demi-girls, and anyone else who says they feel female – including inevitably men who do not have gender dysphoria. As Elizabeth I could have warned 2004’s legislature, it is not possible to make windows into men’s hearts. 

Does that original category, for whom the GRA was introduced, still need its  protection? Is it proportionate to jettison their protections because members of a much wider group are now seeking to claim those protections? The film does not explore this, no doubt because it is a film made by and about women, but it would be an interesting topic for a post screening discussion. 

What does come across strongly is criticism of those who seek to stifle any political discussion on the subject of evolving and fast-moving legal developments which affect us all. UCU come in for a well deserved hammering: their hyperbolic demonisation of critics is said to be in direct conflict with academic freedom. If academic sociologists can’t critique social issues, asks Dr Jane Clare Jones rhetorically, then “what are we for?” Quite. 

I combed through this film seeking out offence, given the protests. Not every viewer will agree with every interviewee – I certainly didn’t. But each of them gave me food for thought. I is risible to suggest that any one of them was “hateful” or that the film is so subversive as to be worthy of blocking. Any undergraduate who has academic ambition – particularly if it is towards law – should think very seriously about the difference between distaste and illegality. It is a topic which has been known to come up at pupillage interview. 

2 thoughts on “Film Review: Adult Human Female”

  1. It is indeed difficult to see why showing this documentary on campus should be blocked. It’s challenging in places but in form and content it is well inside what should be acceptable in public, and especially academic, debate. I was, however, taken by two other issues that lie just below the surface of the film – both related to the downside of these single-issue debates.

    The first is whether a focus on single issues like gender identity actually makes certain topics harder to understand by failing to present a complete picture of the problem. I’m thinking in this instance of the question of sexual violence in prisons – discussed at some length in the film. Recent figures show that each year there are hundreds of sexual assaults, including rapes, in our prisons – most not involving trans people. Prisons aren’t safe places for anybody. Maybe if we understood and tackled that wider issue it would lead to a more balanced debate and more practical solutions?

    Second, I wonder how much the idea of protected characteristics is a helpful one? When Diane Abbott wrote her recent bizarre letter to the Observer she was criticised for seeming to argue for a hierarchy of prejudice and discrimination. But isn’t that exactly what (for example) the Equality Act enshrines? Discrimination on the basis of sex, sexual orientation, disability and so on is deemed worth covering in the Act. Why not discrimination on grounds of body weight, socio-economic status, or non-disabling mental disorder? I have mixed feelings about this because I can see the progress that has been made by challenging (for example) discrimination based on race or sex. But I wonder if focus on the special status of certain characteristics can at times be counterproductive, especially as the grounds for asserting special status proliferate.

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